If there was ever the perfect time needed for a glimpse into the New York Islanders’ future, it came on Saturday night in New Jersey.
The team had announced a night before that left-winger, captain, and leading scorer Anders Lee would be out indefinitely after suffering a lower-body injury during Thursday’s win against the Devils at Nassau Coliseum.
“That hurts,” his linemate, Mathew Barzal said about losing his teammate for an extended stretch. “When that happened the other game, it was weird, it was an eery feeling for me and [Jordan Eberle] missing our winger.”
Obviously, a sizable blow that could prompt general manager Lou Lamoriello into making a splash before the NHL’s April 12 trade deadline. But in the interim, Lee’s absence opened a spot for winger Kieffer Bellows to not only get off the taxi squad and into the fold but to line up on the first line to the left of Barzal and Eberle.
He made the most of it, scoring two goals and helping the Islanders to a 3-2 comeback victory with the other New York tally coming from a fellow youngster, Oliver Wahlstrom.
“He’s similar with a bigger body and he’s going to win battles down low,” Barzal said of Bellows. “He has such a good release… Just trying to play his strengths and getting used to each other, I think it’s going to be a good mix.”
The 22-year-old Bellows had been benched since Feb. 18; organizational breakdowns off the puck seeing him quickly fall out of favor with head coach Barry Trotz.
Meanwhile, Wahlstrom has made out like a bandit with his opportunity to play. Constantly receiving praise from Trotz for his off-puck work and all-around game, the 20-year-old right-winger has quickly carved out his niche on the third line next to J-G Pageau. He’s played in 21 games this season but has been hot over his last 10, recording four goals and three assists (seven points) — including one of his wicked wristers late in the first period on Saturday night against the Devils to tie the game at one apiece.
After falling 2-1 going into the third, Bellows took over to make it very difficult for Trotz to pull him out of the lineup anytime soon after answering the head coach’s call.
“Kieffer was handed the ball right at the start of the year and did okay, but what you see was that we were rolling a little bit and he had to sit,” Trotz said. “We talked about why he came out of the lineup. I said ‘what you do from this moment on will decide how successful you’ll be in your next opportunity.’ I told him I don’t know when that next opportunity will come, but when it does, you have to be ready.”
Ready he was.
Bellows scored both his goals just 3:11 apart early in the third period — the first a wrist shot from between the circles off a feed from Barzal, who was draped by two defenders.
“We just wanted to push the pace and dominate in the third,” Bellows said. “Scoring one gives you confidence to go out there and make more plays.”
On his second tally just 5:10 into the third period, he exhibited the kind of power-forward move that the Islanders had been waiting for as he streaked down the left-wing, held off a defender while cutting toward the net, and slotted the puck around Devils goalie McKenzie Blackwood while another defenseman bore down on him in the crease.
“I just wanted to go out there, work hard, grind down low, and be responsible. It was a good team effort there to get the win. That’s the most important.”
So what has to be done for Bellows to stay in the mix and on that first line alongside Barzal and Eberle on the first line?
“He has to do a lot of things he does well,” Trotz said. “Go to the front of the net, he has pretty good wall skills, systematically he has to be pretty strong, and he has to be consistent; shift in and shift out.”